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Into the valley of death
It was an early morning; late enough, however, to see the burgeoning rays of sunlight spill over the peaks of the Armenian Highlands. In a small valley, located in the north east of the country that was once called Syria, a group of black military vehicles were drawn up, soldiers working over them like a hive of silent ants. As the Third armed itself for battle, the soldiers of the CCD seemed reluctant to break the almost tranquil silence that lay over the roiling landscape. It would be broken later, of course, in a storm of harsh gunfire, barked orders, and the misleadingly soft patter of the rail guns clutched in the hands of the men of the Third.

Victoria was sweating quietly in full battle armour. Her helmet, complete with the built in Land Warrior in a visor that could be turned transparent and tinted at will, lay on the cheap, pop up table in front of her. A Wallet was set on the cheap, plastic surface, one that would fats become too hot to touch without gloves on. Even if the black gloves she was wearing were starting to collect sweat. Ignoring that, ignoring the weather, Victoria forced herself to concentrate on the map in front of her. The wallet had raised a holographic, 3D image of the surrounding area. Victoria could see the transport vehicles and light defences that marked their current location in the valley. Then, the small rise, that dipped into the cluster of buildings surrounding a cave entrance. The target.

Sure, it was the norm now, but technology like this was still pretty impressive when she stopped to think about it. Something like this would've been a miracle when she was born. Anyway. Silly thoughts for when she wasn't in a combat zone. Her head raised, surveying the three officers in front of her. Grim, scarred, Captain Henderson, who periodically scowled at nothing in particular. Major Mikhailov, arms clapsed behind his back, a slightly fresher face. Mikhailov was younger -still older than Victoria-, and a fresh, innocent looking face hid a desire to serve the CCD that was almost terrifying. Finally, Captain Edwards, a mostly silent woman, who honestly Victoria knew little about, even if they had served together for a year. Then again, Victoria didn't socialise much. Still, all of them were her most competent officers. They didn't need much today. Only two companies; anything else would have been too much.

For a moment, Victoria's eyes strayed to her men, arming and armouring. Quiet laughing, joking around. To a lesser trained eye, they seemed blase, with no real care that they were about to go to war. Victoria knew, however. She could sense their fear, that tension in the air. The slight movements that betrayed anxiety; someone sucking on their lip, eyes darting momentarily. Another laughing too hard at a joke that really didn't deserve it. Obsessively checking a gun that had been checked every five minutes. She'd yet to see a solider who didn't go into battle with a dry mouth, and sweaty hands however. It was when you got into it that the fight came out. When the Third pushed themselves. They always did. It was like clockwork, and today wouldn't be any different.

Her eyes snapped back to her officers, and as she straightened, so did they. Their eyes had never even left hers, and the tension hit a subtle new level. This was going to be the preparation, the beginning. Clearing her throat, Victoria began, a hand flicking over the hovering battlefield to manipulate it better for her.

"From what the forward reconnaissance units have brought back, we know that they spread out between the caves, and the few buildings outside. Now, and this is more speculation on my part, the men who are currently around the outside look uncertain. Angry. There's definitely tension there. That paired with the information gathered by Henderson, it seems likely that Elder Maan, based upon our word, informed those from his village on the imminent threat we presented. Therefore, if we make our presence known before engaging, we should be able to reduce the number of combatants against us."
Grim silence greeted her words. While there hadn't been argument, as there never would be, advice from her officers had indicated their displeasure for this. Victoria was the one set on keeping her word, ensuring they could save as many as possible. Henderson had complained about losing the element of surprise, risking the men's lives. Mikhailov had quietly noted that they were enemies of the state, and deserved punishment. Both beliefs that were only creating more and more situations like this. It was with a quiet irritation that Victoria cursed the rigidness of the CCD forces in this. They needed to be flexible. To adapt, and no one seemed to understand that.

Compressing an irritated sigh the the thinning of her lips, she flipped the map to concentrate on the small village. "Reconnaissance also brought back little note of new defensive positions. Therefore we can assume word didn't spread to those who know, fortunately. There may well be IEDs on the road coming in, but with little in our way, we move fast, and quick. Edwards, your company is tasked with taking the surface. Henderson, we'll then move in fast and quick on their heels, and breach the caves. Work on a squad basis. We don't know the layout, but as the Land Warriors are on local link, we should be able to map it out."

The briefing didn't need much more. They were competent to be able to get on with tasks set. A few minutes more, and there was a series of nods, the three of them departing. Victoria let herself relax slightly then, leaning with her hands on the table, head bowed. Off to war again. She knew some had issue with killing; it had been a surprise, initially, how many people could only handle one tour of duty. That she didn't have an issue with taking life when it was needed frightened her, to a certain degree, and Victoria was never entirely sure whether the fear of her emotionless state excused it or not. Likely not. She was still someone who would defend herself with little remorse. Attack, too. As much as she tried to hide it, to excuse herself.

An irritated noise left her lips, and Victoria straightened, picking up her helmet to strap it on. Her existential crisis could come after she staggered out of that cave. Hopefully alive. Her hand went to her side-arm, and she pulled it out, loading in a cartridge. A short pause, and she felt the power start to flow through her. It wouldn't be influencing emotions today, however.

Her voice seemed far away, inconsequential in the bask of the glow emanating inside her. "By my mark, advance! For the glory of the Ascendancy! For the Custody!"

A ragged cheer greeted her words, and the Third advanced to war.
When enough people were moving, the pounding of boots didn't sounds like boots anymore. It was more a steady thunderstorm. Perhaps a train. Victoria kept up close behind the first company, who had split into squads to take the village from the southern entrance to the valley, and the low, eastern side. Victoria was confident no one who they didn't want to get away could. The western side was an almost sheer cliff face, and while the northern entrance seemed free, that was purposefully deceptive. Henderson's scouts were up there, dug in. Between the couple of light machine guns, any insurgents who wished to fight another day would see themselves swept down in a hail of crossfire.

The colonel hung off the side of one of their few vehicular supports. Victoria had left any request for a tank, anything armoured behind. Would've just got in the way. Just a pair of trucks, heavy rail guns mounted on the back. Her grey eyes scanned the buildings fiercely, taking a closer look with the land Warrior built into her visor every now and then. Her ear piece was full of chatter from the various officers taking their men across the bumps, down the hills to surround the buildings. She saw the flicker of movement in the buildings, and the skirmish began with the rattle of small arms fire.

The older guns used by the insurgency rattled out from murder holes and windows, the battle cries rising. She couldn't understand them, at at first, Victoria thought that was due to the noise of the battle. It took a moment for her to realise they were screaming in Arabic, the old language of the region. She'd very rarely heard it, but it made sense; what better way to fight off the shackles than reject everything. To her chagrin, a few figures from the advancing groups slumped to the floors, to cries for medics. The Third advanced well, however; one squad laying covering fire, while another ran to advance to something that would offer suitable cover, and it would repeat, the company slowly leapfrogging to the buildings. The soft patter of rail guns started to fight against the harsher barks.

The rail guns started to win out against the assault rifles, and with a start, Victoria realised that a group was fleeing from the village, heading north. A good portion of the defenders had leaped away, and from what she was hearing, were being shot at by those still in the village.

Her voice crashed over the radio, silencing the confused voices coming from it. "Cover those fleeing! Damnit, now! I want snipers targeting those trying to gun them down, now! Henderson, ensure your scouts let them pass. They'll be lopping around to the town we were at last week." A barked series of affirmatives greeted her, and her visor lit up with the view of those few in the ranks with the longer, scoped guns lining up the shots on the north wall. Eventually, the gravelly Henderson's voice joined in, confirming he'd sent the order to let them pass. She sagged in relief at that, a victorious smile crossing her thin lips. Knowing Henderson, she'd almost expected the order to come late. After the machine guns had lined up. That... no, that was unfair. Henderson never disobeyed her. Wouldn't. She'd earned their trust, and she needed theirs now.

It was odd that she was so much more expressive during battle than normal. Perhaps it was that now, she was alone, no one carefully analysing her reactions like that. Formality did rather seem to break down when death was whizzing around your head.

"Fourth Squad has breached the east side! We have a breach point, I repeat, we have a breach point!"
The victorious scream brought her back to the battle, and her own smile faded. It was good news, of course, but now she really did need to concentrate. The vehicle she was on drew to a halt, and Victoria leapt off, running forward, her side arm in hand, as always. With it, she could let her power grow.

As she let more power into her, Victoria's eyes were drawn to another of the squads in front of her, storming to one of the outlying buildings. With a start of horror, she was an insurgent rise from the roof of the thing, RPG in hand, aimed directly at him. She didn't think. Rarely needed to with her power, and her left hand instinctively shot up, and a yellow lines drew from her hand. As the rocket left the launcher, the air it encountered seemed to solidify, the rocker careening off its intended course to strike the ground to the side of them leaving the only thing hurt the squad's pride as they were scattered with dirt. A soft pop, and the man holding the now empty launcher disappeared with a quick spray of red. He'd been too busy staring at the sudden misdirection to realise he was still in danger.

Victoria would say it didn't take long to take the buildings. You could never be sure, though. Time almost lost meaning. Her Land Warrior recorded it for her, however. Those things made after battle reports so much easier. By the time Victoria jogged into the square, it was over. The first going through building by building, securing everywhere, ensuring there were no surprises. The cave entrance was a short distance away, and Victoria gestured at one squad who had just jogged into the square with her.

"You! Cover that damned hole. You see any movement that doesn't have its hands up, light it up. Move it!"
Her head swung around, eyes settling on just the person she needed. Victoria's voice carried well, naturally suited for barking out orders over a battlefield, and the squad instantly moved behind cover, barrels aimed at the darkness. "Edwards! Report!"

Captain Edwards, painting heavily, slammed into a salute, rigid in front of her superior officer. "Ma'am! Minimal casualties! Squad seven was severely injured by an IED but that was the worst hit; others only suffered individual casualties, medics are out. None apart from the ones you approved escaped; we're taking injured and surrendered back to the trucks for custody."

Victoria gave a short nod to the Captain, putting her face of frank professionalism on again. "Very good Captain. You and your company did excellently. Tell the men they have my thanks. Henderson! Bring up your company. We've breaching in ten." Henderson, having just joined them, snapped out an affirmative, before letting off his roaring voice, summoning his company to him. A few were armed differently to the ones who had taken the town; close range weapons, combat shotguns, bayonets, side arms, were on a much more prominent display.

Henderson came up beside her, cocking the assault shotgun in his hands, and working a sardonic grin, twisted with a particularly heavy scar. "Well ma'am, lets go burn these damned rats out."
Victoria just frowned at his tone, and raised her sidearm, letting the power still in her hold the beginnings of fatigue away.

"Company! Prepare for close quarter engagement. Prep for little visibility."
The infrared on her land warrior flickered to life. No need for torches that would reveal positions here, as the lasers detectable by their visors flickered to life too. It would be short, fast, and brutal. As it always was.

And Victoria hoped to whatever gods there were it was successful too.
Victoria didn't like caves. Cramped, dark, and she had an itching feeling that there was always something she couldn't see. Of course that fear was much bigger now she was slowly advancing into a twisting complex that she had no idea of the size, and that contained an unknown number of combatants who could have all manner of traps waiting her.

It felt more surreal that the battle outside had. She'd taken the right fork that had appeared almost instantly in the caverns, the one that seemed to go down. They'd heard the sound of battle behind them, but the Mikhailov had indicated over the radio that the squads under his command that had gone left were doing fine. There were more casualties in here. Not many, but any single death hit Victoria. It was worse when she was lying in bed, thinking about what she could have done to save more lives.

That was later however. Now, she was slowly moving down a dark tunnel, the night vision in her visor allowing her to actually see where she was going. Henderson was with her, his shotgun raised constantly next to her shoulder, and the two men in front moved quietly and quickly to clear each corner they came across.

A hand shot up in front of her bringing the squad to a halt. The solider turned, giving Victoria a meaningful look in the dark. Letting a bit more power into her, she strained her hearing, locking onto the noises straight away. A room around the corner. Definitely people in it, trying to be quiet. The colonel gave a small nod, and raised three fingers. The atmosphere around her changed instantly, all weapons raised, fingers curling around triggers.

One fingered lowered, and the squad advanced to the edge of the corner, boots stepping softly on the gravelling ground. Another went down, and Victoria could sense the collective breath being drawn in. Her first clenched, and the change seemed almost impossible, the squad moving at speed around the corner.

The room was lit; dimly lit, the insurgents not expecting them to have night vision, for the cave, no doubt. Fortunately, the land warriors could adjust to the level of light quickly, leaving no one blinded. The surprise of the attack meant the soft sounding rail guns fired first, before the angry kalashnikovs answered. As Victoria went around the corner, she felt the body of the man in front of her slump back, feeling the impact of bullets thudding into his armour. She had no time to check if he was dead or not; instead, shielded by a possible corpse, her gun raised.

Time always seemed to slow in combat. Victoria seemed to tunnel vision on one man stood to the side, gun raised at her and her 'shield'. Must've been the man who fired the shots. She let a breath out, hand steadying.

Two to chest. One to head. Three small thuds.

Victoria breathed in again, the insurgent crumpling to the ground. Time still seemed to pass at a snail's pace as her head swiveled around, spotting another on the other side of the cave, about to light them from the side. It was dark. No one would be able to see, and she could use her power with much less risk of being caught. As before, air solidified, the man's gun slammed against the wall. Victoria's eyes met his ones, full of shock. She let a breath out.

Same again. Two to chest. One to head.

Breath back in, and another man down. In the dim light, she could vaguely make out the dark smear against the wall as the limp body slumped down it. Her head turned quickly, back to the center of the room.

It was over, cleared. With a start she realised she'd never stopped moving forward, propping up the body. A moment of distaste and panic flashed through her mind, but she verified the room was clear, barking out confirmation before lowering the corpse. Crouching down, one look to the shattered visor, and mess of blood and bone confirmed what Victoria had feared. Her mouth pressed into a line. Didn't even know his name.

"One down. No need for medic."
Her voice seemed soft, inaudible to her own ears. The squad came to a halt, however. One man softly cursed, and time seemed to stop once again. Henderson cut through the lethargy, however. His gruff voice was good at that.

"We'll get the dead later. Ma'am?"
The question was almost insolent, but Victoria knew she deserved it. Needed to continue on, never falter in front of the men.

Standing, she calmly reloaded her side arm, staring at each of them in turn. Finally, Victoria spoke, voice almost as gruff as Henderson's. "We don't know how deep these go. Lets go."
Hands tightened on weapons again, following murmured confirmation. Reforming back into the tight group, the night vision raised again as they moved into the dimly lit tunnels. Victoria put herself just behind the front row, letting the power in her guide them forward, sensing any little thing that might help.

It was almost clockwork after that. There were three more open areas, each exactly as same as the last. The insurgents were bunkered down, scared. More and more laid down their arms rather than die as they had heard their comrades die. At the last one, only a couple had bothered to fight, the rest already crouching, arms raised. Which was a relief. The Third itself with Victoria only took two more casualties throughout; radio chatter gave a similar story on the other branch of the complex.

One more hallway. That was what one of the surrendered insurgents had said, terror on his face. Poor man thought he was going to be executed. Honestly, Victoria wasn't sure if he was far from wrong. It wouldn't be there, at least. Turning towards Henderson, the pair grimly nodded at each other. One last room.

The officers led the way themselves this time, moving quickly enough that by the time they rounded the final corner, their men weren't there to cover them. Foolish, but neither of the officers noticed. Last cave, wouldn't be a threat. Anyone in it would likely have their hands over their head if the pattern decided to continue. Entering it, they faltered for a moment. It was actually cosy, a well furnished room. Boxes lay about here and there, as well as rugs, a large bed. Even a desk, with an ancient desktop computer on it. That was a sight. The back of the cave started to taper off, a tine passageway extending into darkness. No way anyone could get through there.

A bark of warning from Henderson alerted her to a bearded, older man rushing at them. Victoria was able to dimly register the long beard and embroidered robes that likely placed him as the base's commander.

He was also wearing a vest of explosives.

Victoria felt ice cold, her gun refusing to raise turn quickly enough. No way she could shoot him in time. Instead, her hand splayed out, yellow lines weaving out to slam the man back, throwing him in the direction of the hole in the wall. She screamed inside as she did so. Henderson will have seen it. He had to. The man wasn't stupid, and her secret... it was out to him now.

The daze was interrupted by the small crack of Henderson's shotgun, depriving the mujahideen of a head. The body slumped back to the ground. They waited for a few moments, but no explosion came. The relieved breath came simultaneously.

She knew she had to look at him. As Victoria took off her helmet, her head reluctantly swiveled to meet the older man's eyes. Not even stone faced Henderson could hide the fear, the shock. He swallowed it though, which made sense. Something like that would be rationalised in a few days. He tripped. It was Victoria's firearm that forced him back.

"Last cave secured. Leader down."
Victoria finally broke the silence by speaking into her mic. Similar confirmations came back. Seems they were done. The silence seemed to stretch forever, before Henderson suddenly nodded, and turned back to the room.

"Right then. That's all well and good. Let's see if this bastard has anything important."
His voice was unreadable. Victoria was worried, but gave a gruff noise of confirmation. She kept the power up for now, letting it rest at a small burn. If it completely went, she'd collapse. Do that on the truck back. No one would find it odd if she slept on the way back to base. Victoria stooped to the bomb in the center of the room. Being counter insurgency, she'd had some training in dealing with this sort of thing. She crouched, drawing out some pliers to hesitate for a moment, before snipping a couple of wires. There. That would ensure it wasn't about to blow on them.

A surprised grunt came from behind her, and Victoria's head snapped around to look at the captain staring at a small metal box in his hands.
"Would you look at this."
Rising, Victoria approached him curiously staring at the metal he'd picked from the box, trying to ignore the tension.

She recongised it almost instantly. A similar one hung around her own neck. "Is that a dogtag?"
Henderson responded to the curious question with a nod, before letting out a bark of laughter, and holding the small bit of metal out for her. Stamped across the back was LEGION PREMIERE. Victoria's eyes widened, the realisation hitting her quickly. Henderson just nodded.

"Yeh, remember those crazy French bastards who were hired in for the war? This guy must've fought them, collected these off the bodies or something. Weird bloody war trophies. Guess we'll take these back. Legions supposed to be rich, might get a decent little bonus out of it from them."
Victoria raised an eyebrow, and was about to respond with something that would remind him that they were neither mercenaries nor looters, when Henderson's gaze went to the cave behind her. His face went white, jaw dropping open immediately.

The power flared up, and Victoria whirled around, side arm raised to stare at a... man? No. That wasn't a man. Her face went as white as the thing coming out of the crack in the cave wall. It was all grey, and shaped like a man, but no man could squeeze out of there. It was like he -it- flowed through, like it was made of fog, or mist.

She emptied her magazine into it. Didn't need to see that the bullets didn't hit. Victoria could hear them pass straight through, clipping on the stone wall. Fuck. Well, that partly answered a nagging question she'd had. At least her power wasn't unique. There was other odd stuff in the world. She wasn't too much of a freak.

The yellow weaves shot out next, a solid wall of air slamming at the thing. It flowed around it, leaving Victoria and Henderson stumbling back to the entrance of the cave as it slowly advanced. Of course air wasn't going to stop it. It was mist! Panicking, Victoria looked around, desperately trying to think of anything.

It was then her eyes settled on the vest of explosives, still on the floor. The mist was just stepping over them. Forgetting Henderson was even there, she raised her trembling hand, a ball of fire appearing in it. One last chance. If that thing touched her... it seemed like it would be it. She threw her hand forward, the ball of flame hitting the body of the man, detonating on impact. The suicide vest joined it, the explosion ringing out to blast Victoria and Henderson back against the cave wall behind them.

When they groggily staggered back to their feet, the dust was beginning to settle, and the ringing starting to fade. Most of the cave had collapsed, onto whatever information the man had stored in there. The thing was no longer there. Was it dead? The box was still clutched in Henderson's hands.

Victoria felt like she was going to be sick as the power went back down to a simmer. Fuck. He'd... he'd seen. Henderson knew. Steeling herself, she turned to face him, opened her mouth to say something, anything. Nothing came out, however. She was left staring at him like an idiot.

The silence stretched, and stretched. Finally, Henderson spoke. His voice actually shook slightly; that was almost as terrifying as him knowing. Henderson worried. "I have to admit, I suspected something was up. Guns snapping to the side? Bullets never hitting you? The way you make people do what you want? Fuck me, ma'am. That's... shit, I don't know. I don't know what it is, but it just saved my life from whatever the hell that was."
He trailed off, shaking his head in wonderment. Looking back at her, Henderson suddenly grunted out a thanks. "And I won't tell a soul."

With that, the Captain turned on his heel, marching back into the cave. His harsh voice rang out to those who had started to run to see what had happened, telling them in his usual gruff way top mind their own business as no one was hurt.

Victoria was left there, in now almost pitch darkness, completely alone with her thoughts.

Was all she was able to say, a rare bit of language. She never swore. Today was full of all sorts of shocking events. The colonel rolled her neck, and started to trudge after Henderson. She'd sleep like a log on the way back to base.

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